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Bronwen Maddox, editor of Prospect, has a long article entitled "Just Too Many?", arguing
that the world needs to end its taboo on discussing population and
population control. This is of course pegged on the United Nations'
somewhat gimmicky announcement that the world will pass seven
billion people on 31st October. Thugh it is generally
a good essay, like so much of the coverage, Maddox's article fails
sufficiently to distinguish the top-down approach to population,
which did indeed become taboo after 1994, and the bottom-up one,
which did not. The bottom up one focuses on economic development
and public health, which together drive down birth rates by
enabling women to plan smaller families rather than keep breeding
heirs and spares. The top-down approach targets birth rates
themselves. I would argue that its cruelties should make us
cautious before returning to it. I have sent the following letter
to the editor at Prospect:
Your population cover story makes a
good case that public-sector experts effectively turned their backs
on the issue following the intervention of an unusual mixture of
conservatives and feminists at the Cairo conference in 1994. Was
this silence entirely a bad thing? Do not underestimate the harm
done by the coercion recommended in the 1970s by western
intellectuals -- and implemented. Egged on by Western
governments and pressure groups, coerced sterilisation became a
pattern all across Asia in the 1970s. Chinese women were forcibly
taken from their homes to be sterilised. Cheered on by Robert
McNamara's World Bank, Sanjay Gandhi ran a vast campaign of rewards
and coercion to force 8 million poor Indians to accept vasectomies.
Yet we now know that bottom-up forces, chiefly public health
improvements and economic growth, generally reduce birth rates even
faster than top-down coercion (which bodes well for Africa with its
recent rapid economic growth). The availability of contraception is
necessary but not sufficient. Maybe the inattention of the
international quangocracy is not always a bad thing.
After writing this I came across an unusually (for the
BBC) well-researched and well-informed essay on this subject by
Mike Gallagher on the BBC, which makes the same point in greater
detail. Some extracts:
Had the demographic experts worked at
the grass-roots instead of imposing solutions from above, suggests
Adrienne Germain, formerly of the Ford Foundation and then the
International Women's Health Coalition, they might have achieved a
better picture of the dilemmas facing women in poor, rural
"Not to have a full set of health
services meant women were either unable to use family planning, or
unwilling to - because they could still expect half their kids to
die by the age of five," she says.
Western experts and local elites in the
developing world soon imposed targets for reductions in family
size, and used military analogies to drive home the urgency, says
Matthew Connelly, a historian of population control at Columbia
University in New York.
"They spoke of a war on population
growth, fought with contraceptive weapons," he says. "The war would
entail sacrifices, and collateral damage."
Such language betrayed a lack of
empathy with their subjects, says Ms Germain: "People didn't talk
about people. They talked of acceptors and users of family
Today's record-breaking global
population hides a marked long-term trend towards lower birth
rates, as urbanisation, better health care, education and access to
family planning all affect women's choices.
With the exception of sub-Saharan
Africa and some of the poorest parts of India, we are now having
fewer children than we once did - in some cases, failing even to
replace ourselves in the next generation. And although total
numbers are set to rise still further, the peak is now in